Skip to content Skip to navigation

To Save Crops, Farmers Took Groundwater. Then the Land Sank

Mar 24 2017

Like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too.

Troubled Water A flow of runoff designed to move serenely through a bypass structure becomes an abrasive torrent, right, after pouring down a waterfall created by land subsidence. To rejoin the San Joaquin River, this water will have be pumped back out again or a growing pool of low-level water may spill out over nearby land. Photos: Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

By Felicity Barringer

The story of land subsidence in California’s Central Valley usually begins with a focus on wells and groundwater withdrawal. So, in western Madera County, one looks to wells like the ones Case Vlot needed to keep forage growing on his 3,500 acres in Chowchilla, which he uses to feed a few thousand dairy cattle. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, 10 of Vlot’s wells reach below the clay layer deep underground that supports the gently sloping farmland from Los Banos to Madera.

That farmland has been cracking at the surface for years; heavy pumping to keep crops alive during a five-year drought has made it worse. But now that the rains have come back with a vengeance, water managers have a new reality: like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too. Thanks to the damage, they can’t hold as much water.

It is not a good time for the flood infrastructure to function below capacity. Just as the drought was epic, the snowmelt of 2017, arriving in the next few months, may be epic as well. So, three things are happening:

  • Downstream, Central Valley farmers, water managers, and communities are getting ready for the water’s arrival.
  • Upstream, dam managers are trying to make room in their reservoirs to store the coming snowmelt, hoping they can make enough space to allow them to release runoff gradually into the rivers below.
  • Overhead, aircraft and satellites are providing increasingly accurate measurements of how much the land below has subsided. Water specialists and researchers are analyzing the this data to determine what is happening, where, how fast, and what must be done about it.

One of the starkest examples of subsidence in California’s Central Valley can be found in the area around Los Banos and Chowchilla, where the 50-mile Chowchilla-East Side Bypass structure was designed to absorb the runoff from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. But it is hardly unique in being damaged by subsidence, according to a recent report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A new Stanford paper determined that subsidence caused a permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity amounting to “roughly nine percent of the groundwater pumping” in the Central Valley area they studied.

Last month, the agency reported the sinking is happening faster, putting infrastructure on the surface at growing risk of damage. In a bowl north of Yolo, the ground has dropped nine inches over the past six years; a bowl around Tulare and Corcoran has subsided a like amount, or even a bit more. A new book, “High and Dry,” explains that the subsidence the San Joaquin Valley is suffering mirrors what is happening in arid farming regions around the world.

The measuring tools carried by aircraft and satellites have become very sophisticated. “We have radar images every six days to a month, repeating,” said Tom Farr, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the lead author of the NASA report, “I can see the changes in the ground as they happen.” Not all the subsidence is permanent, he added.

And it is not just flood control structures whose capacity has been reduced by subsidence. A new paper by Rosemary Knight, an Earth Sciences professor at Stanford and Ryan G. Smith, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in environmental geophysics, which was published in “Water Resource Research,” determined that subsidence caused a permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity amounting to “roughly nine percent of the groundwater pumping” in the Central Valley area they studied.

“Whatever happens below the ground, it’s done. You cannot recover.” Chris White of the Central California Irrigation District. At right, water cascades down a rift created by subsidence under a bridge over the Chowchilla Bypass. Managers estimate that damage caused by subsidence has reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by a quarter. Photos: Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

As far as Chris White is concerned, “Whatever happens below the ground, it’s done. You cannot recover.” Mr. White is the general manager of the 80-mile long Central California Irrigation District, which encompasses are quarter of a million acres and 1,900 landowners in the area around Los Banos. The district supplies more than half a million acre-feet of water a year to its largely agricultural customers. Mr. White knows very well what farmers have gone through trying to keep crops going during droughts. He also remembers the flood years, like 1997 — experience that is guiding him now.

Standing on a bridge over the Chowchilla Bypass, he gestures past the water roaring over a 15-foot waterfall created by subsidence, to a spot beyond where surging water from a February storm overtopped the banks and left a tangle of tree limbs and other debris. Aside from endangering farmland, the floods that could overtop the bypass could swamp parts of Highway 152 and a local elementary school.

Perched over the new waterfall, Mr. White explained the gouging impact of the water, which makes the hole deeper. The water carries away soil and vegetation, depositing them further down the bypass in a low place with slower flow. This further impedes water designed to flow back into the San Joaquin riverbed. Worse, subsidence means the water pools lower than the last portion of the bypass structure. To get the water back into the bypass and on to the river channel, it must be pumped uphill.

Sunken by Groundwater Pumping, the Central Valley’s Flood Infrastructure Will Be Put to the Test By Spring Snowmelt

During the past few years of drought, large parts of California’s Central Valley experienced land subsidence — a sinking of the ground level that can damage infrastructure and affect the flow of irrigation and stormwater canals. The primary culprit, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe, is the heavy pumping of groundwater to replace missing surface water supply. According to NASA’s aerial analyses, some areas of the Central Valley sank more than two feet between the springs of 2015 and 2016. Subsidence threatens a vast range of elevation-sensitive infrastructure (in addition to canals and levees), such as railroads, bridges, and buildings. At right, an animation of the estimated snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains over the past few months; this spring, water managers expect snowmelt to bring intense runoff into the Central Valley.

map

Sources: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (land subsidence); State of California Spatial Information Library (aqueducts and water features); U.S. Geological Survey (watershed boundaries) National Snow & Ice Data Center University of Colorado, Global Reservoir and Dams Database; Natural Earth Data    Geoff McGhee
 

Avoiding a flood of water that overtops the bypass is the job of people like Michael Wolfe, a hydrologic supervisor at the Friant Dam, which impounds San Joaquin River water several miles away. Right now, Mr. Wolfe said, dam managers from the federal Bureau of Reclamation are releasing water at an unusually high rate of 9,000 cubic feet per second, to lower the level of the reservoir and allow more space for the snowmelt. “We don’t know when it’s going to come and we’re being as ready as we possibly can be,” he said. One can get ahead of a deluge; it’s almost impossible to catch up.

When the snowmelt comes, the managers at Friant will be having frequent conference calls with their counterparts at the Army Corps of Engineers, who manage dams: the Buchanan dam on the Chowchilla River; the Hidden Dam on the Fresno River just south of it; and further south, the Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River. Also on the calls is the state’s Department of Water Resources, which manages smaller structures.

“When it gets going hot and heavy, we talk every day,” Mr. Wolfe said, “it’s been a good a start to the flood season because we’ve run flood control flows since January,” indicating that the high-volume releases to date are keeping dam managers with capacity to spare to accommodate some future floods. The managers also talk to the San Joaquin Levee District, which manages the bypass. All of them try to do the math, juggling variables of time, distance and flow, to make sure that the vulnerable sections of the bypass don’t have to absorb more than 12,000 cubic feet per second of water. Before subsidence, that section was designed to accommodate 16,500 cfs.

But the dam managers have floods of their own to avoid, and a prescribed regimen of releases when waters surge; their needs take precedence, in a pinch. In the coming weeks, it will be evident whether their choreography of the 2017 water ballet can keep the Los Banos and Madera area dry.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Beyond the Coal Boom: Powder River Basin Residents Look to a Diversified Future

The nationwide decline of coal is testing the resilience of the Powder River Basin. Residents used to a thriving economy, a top-notch education system, and an excess of job opportunities are learning to live with less.

 

 

 

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Madison Pobis,Sierra Garcia and Danielle Nguyen

Articles Worth Reading: October 7, 2019

California Fisherman Are Repeatedly Catching and Releasing Protected Great White Sharks Without Consequences due to cloudy language in the law. Although state regulations strictly prohibit killing a Great White, it’s almost impossible to prosecute because anglers can claim the catches were accidental. Changing ocean conditions mean that more of the animals are sticking around in Southern California, spurring advocates to call for heftier penalties for illegal takes. Hakai Magazine

More Than 80,000 Wild Horses Ended up in Foreign Slaughterhouses Last Year even though killing horses for food is illegal in in the U.S. “Kill buyers” say that exporting to Canada and Mexico decreases the exploding population and helps feed the world, but animal rights activists say that the Bureau of Land Management can do more to protect adoptable horses. The New Food Economy

The Western Rivers Conservancy Conserves Vital River Habitat by Purchasing Land and partnering with local managers. The recent acquisition of old-growth forest surrounding the Blue Creek watershed marks a 10-year effort to preserve critical salmon streams. The organization has purchased and conserved an estimated 175,000 acres of riparian habitat since its founding three decades ago. The acquisitions are handed over to stewards who are expected to implement long-term conservation management plans and make the lands more accessible to the public. Modern Conservationist

The Right of Personhood for the Klamath River Means It Can Bring Cases in Tribal Court, opening up avenues for legal advocacy and shifting the conversation around indigenous knowledge. The move follows a precedent set by New Zealand tribes and an international indigenous movement called Rights of Nature. Although no case has yet been brought to court, the Yurok Tribe’s resolution means that issues like pollution, diseased fish, and even climate change can now be addressed through tribal court. High Country News

A Small Alaska Town Is Slowly Being Consumed by Rusting Cars along with refrigerators, forks, shoes, and everything else imported by plane and boat. With limited options for removing waste once it arrives, Bethel’s citizens instead create graveyards of junk and spare parts. Native Yup’ik Elder Esther Green says that the abandoned cars are more than an eyesore — they’re a disturbance to their native land. “Everything around us has ears, and they can see and they can feel. Just like us human beings.” 99 Percent Invisible Podcast

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2019

Las Vegas is Thirsty for Snake Valley Groundwater even though there is not enough now for key wetlands and springs in this semi-arid region on the Utah-Nevada border, a U.S. Geological Survey study shows. There is certainly not enough to send the Las Vegas area, 250 miles to the south, as much as it wants. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, a regional wholesaler that serves Las Vegas, has applied for an additional 50,680 acre-feet of water per year, which would almost double the current volume of permitted withdrawals of 55,272 acre-feet per year. Circle of Blue

While Seeking Montana Land to Restore Biodiversity, a biologist made friends in Silicon Valley and enemies on the short-grass prairie. The American Prairie Reserve’s strategy was buying land from ranchers who had been struggling economically. After raising $156 million, mostly from Silicon Valley, buying 400,000 acres of land, and reintroducing 800 bison, the group is now a pariah locally. As one rancher said, “their media blitz was 'You guys have been doing it wrong all your lives, and we're about to buy you all up because you're all broke…They came in and insulted the culture and said, we're going to replace you all with bison." Sierra Magazine

From Monterey Bay to the Canadian Border, the Coast Would Become Protected Orca Habitat under a new federal proposal. If it becomes final, the area would be a massive expansion of the ocean area deemed critical for the survival of the killer whales of the Puget Sound. Their hunting ground extends from Southern California to the Salish Sea, but the fish they eat are disappearing, scientists have found, noting that the habitats where people have made major changes are the same ones feeling the extreme effects of climate change. The new area would begin just south of Santa Cruz and would include about 15,626 square miles. Seattle Times

Alaska Summer Heat Means Disappearing Water and Worries about the future. Residents of the Native village of Nanwalek on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage are suffering from a severe drought and working hard to conserve their freshwater. Last month, town officials decided to shut off the taps for 12 hours every night. Nanwalek was one of six communities suffering water shortages during the unusually hot summer. The village, home to the Sugpiaq tribe, is trying to find funds to purchase a reverse osmosis machine to desalinate sea water. Npr

Duck Fat Is for Gentrified City Dwellers. Bear Fat is for Lovers of the Wild. Pastries using bear fat get rave reviews, one hunter-cook says. But the old habit of using bear fat has languished because the quality of the fat depends on what the bears eat – and many eat mostly human garbage. From baking to curing baldness to predicting the weather, the many uses of bear fat over the centuries, and the way the creation of the teddy bear curbed human appetites for bear fat. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: September 9, 2019

The Destructive ‘Blob’ of Warm Pacific Water May Be Coming Back if warming surface waters are not scattered by winds over the next few months, federal scientists say. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the current Alaska-to-California swath of strikingly warm water closely resembles its predecessor. The ‘Blob’ led to the deaths of millions of sea lions and sea birds five years ago, and was associated with the sharp decline in salmon runs. Seattle Times

Administration Targets California’s Authority to Set Standards for Auto Emissions, while the Justice Department opens an antitrust investigation into four automakers who had made a pact with the state about the pollution limits that they would meet in years to come. The four automakers, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, earlier this summer said they would follow stricter emission standards than those set by the Trump administration. The administration is opening the antitrust investigation while the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency both are telling California it lacks authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The state has had independent authority to regulate auto emissions for more than four decades. Politico

Utah Trees On the Chopping Block The Bureau of Land Management is working with heavy earth-moving equipment to wrest knots of juniper and tall pinyon pines from the landsape around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The stated purpose is to improve habitat for sage grouse and allow the growth of fodder for cattle and deer – prized targets for hunters. But the area of slightly more than 1,000 square miles where the activity is set to place has been the site of significant archaeological and cultural finds. Less than 10 percent of the ground has been surveyed, and undiscovered artifacts could be endangered by the activity. Also, the use of heavy equipment in these delicate landscapes can lead to the incursion of invasive species. National Geographic

Changing Wyoming’s Economics As Its Superpower, Coal, Crumbles A decade ago, the state of Wyoming collected $500 million more from tax and related revenues on coal extraction than it does today. Mines are shutting, wrenching the economies of counties that depended on them. Two reporters worked to get under the skin of what these developments – and the way coal is losing out to competitors like natural gas and renewables – mean for the Jim Bridger mine in southwestern Wyoming. A seven-part package called “Powering Down” looks at coal as both a cultural touchstone and an economic driver, and contemplates a future when the mineral superpower has no more strength. Wyofile

Could a New ‘Grand Bargain’ on the Colorado River Gain Traction? The law of the river has tended to give the lower basin states of the Colorado River watershed – like California and Arizona – the right to call on the upper basin states, like Colorado, Utah to ensure they get their share of water, as allocated in a 1922 compact. But that compact was based on overgenerous assumptions about the river’s total flow. And the severe drought of recent years has reduced the river’s flows – never as big as once believed – by about six percent. There is talk, but not yet action, on creating a “grand bargain” that would take away states’ rights to demand their 1922 share, while ensuring that they would maintain access to water for crucial needs. The idea, which makes clear that the river’s flow is 2.5 million acre-feet below the 15 million acre-feet calculated in 1922, is enshrined in a paper circulated at a University of Colorado forum this summer. The question now is whether it will gain traction. Denver Post

What’s In A Name? The landscapes of the West have been called by many names, as different civilizations passed through. Now the names given in the last 200 years by western Europeans are getting another look. Davis Mountain in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is getting a new name – it was named for Jefferson Davis in 1855, before the southern states seceded and he became the president of a rebellious slave-owning confederation. As of last month, it is called Doso Doyabi, or “white mountain” in Shoshoni. A series of similar naming questions are popping up from Washington – should Mt. Rainier bear the name of a British officer? – to Wyoming to Alaska. A look at how the people of the 21st century are reconsidering the names of the 19th. National Parks Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 26, 2019

Many of The West's Estuaries Have Vanished, replaced with farmland and cities, leaving only 15 percent of the original wetlands intact. Although wetland destruction has been rampant across the United States for centuries, the recent study is the first to estimate the full scope of the lost wetlands that once existed where much of Los Angeles county, the Puget Sound’s northern embankment, and the area near Tillamook Bay where dairy cows stand today. Wetlands shield coastal communities from sea-level rise and extreme storms; researchers emphasize that intact wetlands will be the best protectors for coastal communities, making them the least likely to vanish under rising seas. Oregon Public Broadcasting

‘Snow Droughts’ Are Coming For The American West more often because of climate change. The new research estimates that the likelihood of an intense four-year drought like the one California faced from 2012 to 2016 will increase a hundredfold by the second half of this century. The forecast is disastrous for the region’s multi-billion dollar ski resort industry, which will also face peak snowpack shifting to before the spring break height of the season. National Geographic

Federal Scientists Produced A Report Showing Water Diversions Would be a Critical Blow to endangered winter-run Chinook salmon in California and could cost struggling orca whales offshore their food supply. Immediately, other federal officials were dispatched to vet, and possibly revise, it. Just two days passed before fisheries and water officials got an e-mail telling them “fresh eyes” would examine the data for the next two months. Environmental groups have called foul. Sacramento Bee

What Happens When Public Lands Become Tribal Lands Again? A reporter investigates after a multi-decadal legal battle, only in this case, within months of the transfer, a fire burned a large chunk of the land. The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians had some of their traditional lands in southwest Oregon restored in 2018, after 165 years of illegal federal use in violation of a treaty signed with the tribe. The issue of land ownership pitted some environmentalists against tribal leaders, who proposed controlled burns and limited lumber extraction on their land. The recent wildfire ravaged more than a fifth of the land recently transferred back to the tribe. High Country News

A French Saddlemaker Embraces the American West by learning, perfecting, and now teaching the art of traditional western leathercraft. Pedro Pedrini’s passion for the American West and classic western saddles drove him from the Alps in his native France to Oregon, California, and Canada. After four decades of practicing his chosen craft in the United States, he is seen as a consummate artisan. In addition to crafting saddles, he now teaches classes in northern California on leather tooling and saddle creation, hoping to ensure that the knowledge and techniques of western saddle-craft will live on. East Oregonian

The World’s Largest Wildlife Bridge Will Allow Mountain Lions – and other species – to regain most of their old range in the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of Los Angeles. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: August 12, 2019

The Desert Gets A Biocrust Skin Graft in an attempt to reverse the severe erosion, amounting to up to 8,900 pounds of annual soil loss per acre in the Southwest. The thin but hardy film of microbes helps maintain desert ecosystems, ensures healthier air and water, and protects archeological resources. But it can take anywhere from 20 to 2,000 years to regrow once destroyed by oil and gas development or recreational land use. Ecologists who have grown successful artificial biocrusts in labs and greenhouses are now struggling to transplant the homegrown biocrusts onto the desert. These efforts have sparked internal disagreement between land managers and scientists about whether to continue to replace biocrust, or focus time and money on preserving still-intact desert areas instead. High Country News

A Clean Energy Breakthrough Could Be Buried Deep Beneath Rural Utah in a subterranean salt dome, part of which is across the street from an existing transmission line to Los Angeles County. The vast network of salt caverns could act as an enormous battery, using a decades-old technique to store large amounts of energy — in this case,renewable energy. With the neighboring coal plant scheduled to close in 2025, the salt dome is in a perfect position to become a major component of Los Angeles County’s commitment to be 100 percent renewable by 2045. Los Angeles Times

Mountain Goat Eradication Is A High-Flying Balancing Act In Olympic National Park. Helicopter teams are charged with capturing, hog tying, and safely relocating these tenacious invasive animals. The elaborate airborne relocation efforts aim to eradicate all mountain goats from the park, where they have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. They are being moved to their natural habitat of the North Cascades Range, where the native mountain goat population is in decline. The project transported 115 goats last year alone, and so far, tracking devices show that the transported goats are surviving as well as their Cascadian-born kin. The goats that altogether evade their captors, or “muggers,” will eventually be killed to rid Olympic National Park of mountain goats for good. High Country News

This Remote Corner of Nevada Is One Of The Darkest Places in The World, and is now also the newest and largest Dark Sky Sanctuary in the United States. Like all Dark Sky Sanctuaries, the 100,000-acre sanctuary at Massacre Rim lacks legal protection. The International Dark Sky Association bestowed the title on Massacre Rim, recognizing it as one of the best spots in the world to view a night sky unobstructed by light pollution. The area is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest settlement and over four hours from the nearest city; its extreme isolation allows visitors to see the Milky Way shine so brightly that it casts shadows. The audio segment of this story is under four minutes and accompanied by a short written article. NPR

The Pacific Coast Salmon That Are Most Threatened by Climate Change travel furthest to spawn, new research shows. Dams for flood control and irrigation, water diversions and logging have pushed more than 50 runs of salmonids onto lists of endangered and threatened species; climate change may be the coup de grace for some. Inland waterways far from the coast, where some salmon spawn, are getting warmer, and may get too warm for young salmon to survive. Chinook salmon at the greatest risk in three places: California's Central Valley and the Columbia and Willamette River basins. Also at risk are coho salmon in Northern California and Oregon and sockeye salmon from Idaho’s Snake River basin. Inside Climate News

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Oct 7 2019 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
A loophole lets fishermen off the hook; wild horses are being exported to foreign slaughterhouses; two approaches to river conservation; and more recent environmental news from around the West.
Sep 24 2019 | ... & the West Blog
In 1919, a difficult cross-country trek made the case for better roads in the West. The roads came, but a hundred years later, Central Nevada may be as isolated as ever.
Sep 18 2019 | ... & the West Blog
Updated | As was true a half century ago, forces in Washington, D.C. want to loosen emission requirements and strip California of its ability to impose tough standards for vehicle emissions, and once again, California officials are fighting back.